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Blood Dawn, Part III:
Blackened Silk
By Rich Wulf

The Burning Sands&

Adisabah grinned as he chewed on the end of his long pipe. The Rakshasa watched Katamari pace the cave with feline patience. The mask of the Doomseeker still rested on the floor, untouched for many hours.

"You seem unwilling to take up that which is yours," the creature said.

"You seem all too convinced that it is mine to take," Katamari replied. "You claim it is my destiny to fight Iuchiban, to become your Doomseeker. The only evidence you have is that when I faced him last, I didn't die."

"And thus you have already succeeded where many, many others have failed," the Rakshasa replied. "But that is not all that convinces me."

"You mentioned meishodo," Katamari said, "but meishodo is no more than a trick, a way of fixing magic into amulets that my family discovered in the Burning Sands."

"And bread is merely bread," Adisabah replied. "Does that make fire less important for having brought about its existence?" Adisabah plucked the pipe from its mouth, jabbing it towards the sparkling gems that hung from Katamari's wrists. "Meishodo is more than trinkets, meat. There is great power in those jewels. The words you Iuchi use for your meishodo draw upon the laws which bind the cosmos laws by which even the gods must abide."

"What laws bind the gods?" Katamari replied.

"Destiny," the Rakshasa replied with a grin. "Duty. Love. You might be surprised how similar their whims are to your own."

----------------

Toshi Ranbo, Three Months Ago&

"If you have no travel papers, I fear I must ask you to accompany me," the Daidoji bushi said, glaring down from his saddle at the small man before him.

The man only shrugged, adjusting the black porcelain mask that concealed his features. "I misplaced my papers," the man said in a halting, uncertain voice. He had a slight gaijin accent, rare but not unheard of for a Scorpion. "I believe they were stolen while I slept last night."

"Which inn did you sleep in?" the Daidoji demanded. There was a peculiar smell about the man, like smoke and saltpeter.

"One of many," the man said. "I cannot recall the name." He glanced over one shoulder nervously. He began to count under his breath, from ten down to one.

The Daidoji held his spear trained on the stranger. "What did you say your name was?" the Daidoji asked the strange man.

"Cornejo," he replied with a sudden, satisfied smile. "Esteban Cornejo."

With that, the city behind him exploded in a brilliant red inferno. The Daidoji's horse reared in terror. The bushi struggled to control his mount, but by the time he had calmed it, Esteban Cornejo had vanished into the crowd.

----------------

Toshi Ranbo, Today&

The House of the White Jade Fan was quiet tonight, which was not in the least unusual. Fat snowflakes drifted gently past the open windows, bringing a comfortable coolness to the small teahouse. The streets were coated in a white blanket, reflecting Lady Moon's light with a pale, eerie radiance. The White Jade Fan was not particularly remarkable among the many teahouses of Toshi Ranbo, neither excessively opulent nor remarkably poor. It was, for the most part, entirely unnoticeable among the many such establishments that lined the outer edge of the city.

The only detail that set apart in any way, if one noticed, were the well armed and armored Imperial Guardsman who lingered just within the shadows of the entrance, carefully turning away any would-be visitors and cautiously scanning all those who approached for any threats. A more cautious search of the interior might reveal that certain guest rooms were designed with thick doors that did not open from the inside, with panels in small adjoining rooms that could easily be moved aside so that the occupants could be viewed without their knowledge.

The House of the White Jade fan was, in short, a prison. It did not look like a prison, and was a luxurious sort of dungeon to be sure, but it was a prison just the same. It was here that Emperor Toturi III housed guests whom he did not wish to leave the city, and whom he did not wish to be disturbed by others.

Two men sat at a low table in the teahouse's central chambers. One was an older man in robes of simple brown worked with images of cranes in flight. His head was shaven in the manner of a monk. His eyes were marked with a distant sadness. The other was obviously a gaijin, with dark skin and wide eyes. His clothes, however, were the finest Crane silk cut in the modern fashions of the court. Only the blood red turban he wore upon his head marked his dress in any way peculiar. The gaijin sipped his tea thoughtfully, his expression one of thoughtful contemplation as he studied his companion.

"You seem ill at ease, Konetsu-san," the gaijin said with a small smile. "I have been told that Tao monks are supposed to be serene."

Konetsu glanced at the man in surprise. "Troubled times, Rama," Konetsu replied. "For five years the Empire has been at peace. There is war on the horizon."

"A war that you will not be expected to participate in," Rama replied. He rested one hand at his hip, searching for a sword that was no longer there, the practiced gesture of a warrior at rest. "And if such a war occurs, the Crane Clan will be directed by a Champion whom, from what I know of you, you have complete faith in. No, my friend, this war is not what bothers you. In the Ivory Kingdoms we believe that troubles are cowards. Speak their name, and chase them away. Tell me what troubles you, Konetsu-san."

"My father is not a man who surrenders his secrets easily," said a gravelly voice.

Both men looked up with a start as a third figure seemed to materialize from the darkness of the room. He was tall and thin, dressed in the sleek sleeveless blue kimono that was so popular with Crane duelists this season. White hair hung long and loose around his shoulders in the manner of a Doji but his eyes were jet black rather than the normal Doji crystal blue.

"Midoru," Konetsu said with no trace of surprise in his voice. "Why have you come here? The Emperor commanded that none would be admitted into Rama Singh's presence but the guards and me."

"This is true," Midoru replied, his voice cool and even. "Yet I am not here to see Rama Singh. I came out of concern for you, dear father. I was concerned that this gaijin dog might have done you harm."

"In my lands we do not endure insults lightly," Rama Singh replied with a sneer. "If I were not here in the interests of my Maharaja's continued health I would take your tongue from your jaw for those words, Crane, with or without my sword."

Midoru fixed his keen gaze upon Rama Singh. "Then accept my apology, ambassador," he said with a florid bow. "I realize now that my father was in no danger. Surely you know that sometimes emotion causes warriors to do foolish things." Midoru's voice was still even and toneless, expressing none of the emotion he claimed.

"Apology accepted, Midoru-san," Rama said, still watching the Crane cautiously.

"Now then," Midoru said with a smirk, "with my father's safety assured I may as well take advantage of your presence to ask you a few questions - if you do not mind, of course. Incidentally, Lord Kikaze sends his regards."

"Kikaze," Rama said with a laugh. "I may have known that scoundrel was the true reason you were here."

Midoru raised one eyebrow, as if surprised but not truly concerned to hear the Daidoji lord spoken of in such a manner. "I have only one question, ambassador."

"Ask," Rama Singh replied.

"Does the name Cornejo' bear any significance to you?"

Rama Singh looked confused for a moment. "None whatsoever," he replied.

"Excellent," Midoru replied. "Arigato, ambassador. Sayonara, father." Midoru ducked back into the shadows and departed without a sound.

"I have never met your son before, Konetsu-san," Rama said. "You rarely speak of him."

Konetsu sighed. "His life is his own, to live as he wills. My father granted me the gift of freedom I give the same to him."

Rama sipped his tea and pondered in silence for several minutes, studying the kakemono that decorated the wall. "Midoru is the reason this war truly concerns you. He is your only remaining family, and he is a bushi."

Konetsu laughed. "One might think that, given our respective circumstances, you would be more eager to seek counsel than to give it," he replied. "Overnight you have gone from the Emperor's honored guest, the first foreign ambassador to entertain the court in decades, to a prisoner. There are those who blame you for the fires that ravaged Toshi Ranbo, merely because you are gaijin. The Lion demand your death, and though the Emperor knows you are innocent even he can only protect you for so long. You cannot tell me that you do not fear for the future."

Rama Singh held out his hands in a helpless gesture. "I am still alive, for now that must suffice. And if I can do nothing to improve my own situation, than it is just as well that I offer my aid to those I consider my friends."

"Fair enough," Konetsu replied. "Midoru is brash and courageous, too eager to throw himself into battle."

"And this concerns you?" Rama replied. "Are not these traits virtues in this land?"

Konetsu frowned. "He is too brash," he replied. "If we go to war with the Lion, he will undoubtedly request a position at the head of the Crane armies. He once served the Shogun, so given his familiarity with Akodo family tactics, Lord Kurohito would almost certainly grant that request."

"You fear that your son will die?" Rama replied, his tone curious. "Again, I find that strange. I thought that a glorious death was the noblest fate to which a samurai could aspire."

"You know our customs well," Konetsu replied.

"I had the finest teacher," Rama replied, lifting his cup to Konetsu.

Konetsu inclined his head at the compliment. "But you forget one thing," Konetsu replied. "I am no longer samurai." He smoothed one hand over his shaven head. "I am just an old man, and to be honest, it is not my son's death that I fear most."

"Oh?" Rama replied. "Then what do you fear?"

"That he will learn who he truly is."

----------------

Twenty Years Ago, Kyuden Doji&

Peace was a rare commodity in Asahina Konetsu's life, but he could always find it here in the gardens. Tonight, however, the normally serene atmosphere was absent. There was a chill in the air, a chill entirely separate to that brought about by the newly fallen snow. The young swordsman stood in the center of the garden path, blue eyes fixed upon the castle, awaiting his opponent.

The Daidoji appeared on the path, though Konetsu had not seen him approach. Oddly, Konetsu could not even remember the man's name. He stood and calmly regarded the Asahina with deep black eyes, devoid of any emotion.

Something struck Konetsu's back hard, and it took the young swordsman a moment to realize he had been thrown to the ground. He struggled to regain his legs, but felt a cool sensation upon his throat. He looked down at the Daidoji's sword, pressed gently against his neck. If he continued to rise, he would slit his own throat. The man's expression was unchanged. The man's eyes were now truly black, spheres of pure darkness with no whites or irises.

When he spoke, his voice echoed as if from within a deep cave. "You have been a worthy adversary, but it is time for you to concede defeat. Yukie is mine, at least for a while."

"Are you a demon?" Konetsu demanded, staring up at the being before him with what he hoped was no fear.

The man laughed. "No, Konetsu, I am no oni. I am Emma-O, Fortune of Death, Lord of Meido." The Daidoji's katana evaporated into gray smoke and was replaced with an ebony spear.

A cold sensation spread to Konetsu's heart. "So Yukie is to die, then?"

"Not today," Emma-O replied. "We kami, like mortals, are creatures bound by emotion and destiny. Sometimes a mortal gain the Fortunes' attention, Konetsu-san." Emma-O paused for a long moment. "Doji Yukie is a treasure of your realm."

"Then I concede defeat to you, mighty kami," Konetsu replied. He looked up at the Fortune again, a glint of steel in his eyes. "So long as you promise to do her no harm."

"This I promise," Emma-O replied. Then it was the Fortune's turn to pause. When he spoke again, his voice was less ethereal, more human. "But in return for sparing your life I ask you this favor. After this evening, I can dally in the mortal realm no longer. Watch over Yukie. Protect her honor and her life."

"This I promise, mighty kami," Konetsu said, rising to his feet.

The Fortune watched Konetsu for several long seconds, as if measuring the worth of Konetsu's soul. "I will give your mother my regards," he said. Then he was gone, like ashes carried on the wind.

----------------

Outside the Capital, Present Day&

Midoru carefully picked his way through the forests beyond Toshi Ranbo. These areas were heavily patrolled of late. Both the Crane and the Lion were ever vigilant for any signs of a second attack against the capital, while at the same time keeping an eye on one another's activities. Though few had died in the mysterious fires, they had lit a spark of suspicion in the heart of the Empire.

One man seemed more interested in seeking the truth rather than using the situation to his advantage against his enemies, and it was this man that Midoru now sought. He knelt know in a small clearing in the forest beside a small wooden hut, his back to Midoru. He wore armor on his arms and legs in the style of a Hiruma. His white hair hung in a thin topknot down his back. A katana and bow lay on the ground beside him, just within reach. Midoru smiled as he crept forward, making no sound and leaving no tracks as he crossed the snowy clearing. He held a long shaft of wood in both hands, low to one side in a swordsman's stance.

"Midoru, do not seek to test me," Daidoji Kikaze said in a quiet voice. "Now is not the time."

The Daidoji lord neither moved toward his weapons nor looked up from his meditation, yet Midoru knew that if he took another step he would begin a fight that he would surely lose. He threw his stick to the snow with a plop and chuckled.

"What did you learn?" Kikaze asked.

"Rama Singh said he knows nothing of the arsonist," Midoru replied.

"Was he lying?" Kikaze asked.

"No," Midoru said with certainty. "And he called you a scoundrel."

Kikaze looked over one shoulder, a look of mild surprise on his face. "The gaijin is more perceptive than most," he replied.

Midoru nodded. "Any word on Kaeru Toshi?" he asked.

Kikaze shook his head. "Kurohito is convinced that our talents are better focused here, despite my caution that the City of the Rich Frog will surely be our enemy's next target."

"So we continue to search here fruitlessly?" Midoru asked, "With no clues but a single name that means nothing?"

"Perhaps not," Kikaze replied, taking his weapons and rising with a swift, graceful movement. "Follow me."

Kikaze turned and entered the small hut. Midoru followed, sliding the door closed behind him. The Daidoji daimyo easily wedged the tip of his bow between two floorboards and opened a trapdoor that had been invisible a moment before. He proceeded down spiraling stone stairs, into the darkness. Midoru's eyes adjusted easily to the near absence of light. The two men proceeded down for nearly a minute before entering a long hallway bracketed by torches. Steel doors lined the walls on either side. A pair of Daidoji Harriers in pale blue armor like Kikaze's noted them silently and sheathed their swords.

Kikaze and Midoru continued to a large room at the end of the hallway. Iron racks beside each door held weapons, tongs, and various sharp implements for use in both defending the secret prison and in interrogating its occupants. The steel door hung open. Within, an emaciated man hung chained to the wall, stripped naked save a tattered loincloth. His skin was covered with scars and festering boils, obvious signs of the taint. Deep gouges marked his cheeks and jaw, as if some wild animal had torn at his face. A short young man in fine silken blue shugenja robes, decorated with the laurels of a Jade Magistrate, stood to one side of the prisoner. His expression was one of bitter frustration as he bowed to his two visitors.

"Keitaro-san," Kikaze said, returning the bow. "This is Doji Midoru, former lieutenant of the Shogun."

"More of the Emperor's pets, come to pry away my secrets as they pried away my mask?" the chained man said in a manic voice. "No more! You will take no more from me!"

Kikaze ignored the deranged prisoner, turned, and left the cell. Midoru and Keitaro followed. The shugenja closed the door behind them.

"What have you learned?" Kikaze asked Keitaro.

"Very little," Keitaro replied. "I know that Chunigo was once a simple scholar, but his quest for knowledge was perverted when he found a corrupted artifact he calls the Mask of the Maw. I know he has some connection to the Bloodspeakers, but I knew that much before we routed his cult in the Phoenix mountains. He was the only survivor, but seemingly only because the corrupted mask he wore when we found him prevented him from taking his own life as the other cultists did. It has been removed and given to the Phoenix for study. I still do not know what the Horde plans, or how it is connected to their attack on Toshi Ranbo."

"You have proof that the Shadowlands Horde is responsible for the fires?" Midoru asked, surprised by the shugenja's offhand comment.
"Who has more to gain?" Keitaro replied tersely. "After centuries of isolation, Rokugan is on the cusp of opening avenues of friendship with foreign lands. Who would desire such an outcome less than the Ninth Kami?"

"Bloodspeakers do not serve Fu Leng," Kikaze said. "They serve their own interests."

"The sculptor may craft what he likes, but in the end it is still stone," Keitaro said. "So it is with the Taint. Bloodspeaker, Fu Leng, it makes no difference. The powers of Jigoku have spent a thousand years attempting to conquer the Empire and failing at every turn, yet with each battle we grow weaker. Each day those we once called friends, family, enter the service of corruption." Keitaro looked meaningfully at Kikaze. The Daidoji lord was silent, his lips pressed into a firm white line.

"The gaijin would bring us new jade, new weapons, new allies," Keitaro continued. ""Were Rokugan to open its borders, Fu Leng would have to start his war from the beginning."

"You seem convinced," Midoru said. "Yet you have no true evidence or testimony."

Keitaro shrugged. "No energy spent fighting the Shadowlands is wasted," the Jade Magistrate answered. "If Chunigo's cult were not responsible for Toshi Ranbo, then they were part of some other dark plan that yet must be averted."

"Yet you have learned nothing," Kikaze replied.

Keitaro sighed. "No," he replied. "I fear the Bloodspeaker conditioning is quite efficient at fouling the magic we Jade Magistrates generally use to interrogate our subjects. He has revealed nothing."

"Then let me question him," Kikaze said in a low voice.

Keitaro looked at Kikaze in surprise. "Is your intent to torture my prisoner?" he asked.

Kikaze looked at him evenly. "Is your intent to stop me?"

"My lord, it is impure," Keitaro replied. "Let me send for an eta to do this work. A samurai should not endeavor to touch flesh, let alone a corrupted criminal's flesh."

"Fear not for my honor," Kikaze replied, lifting a pair of tongs from the rack beside the door. "I will not touch him."

----------------

Toshi Ranbo, Some Time Later&

Midoru raced through the streets of Toshi Ranbo as swiftly as he was able. He had left his horse behind, moving swifter on foot through the crowded streets.

For a rare moment in the young Crane's life, he felt truly afraid. He did not fear for himself destiny would do with him what it would and he would accept the outcome. He did not fear for the Emperor. He knew Kikaze was already on his way to the Emperor's Palace. The knowledge they had gained from Chunigo would swiftly reach the Emperor's ears. Toturi III would call upon his Jade Magistrates to summon the protective magic that lay within the walls of his palace. He would be in no danger.

Midoru feared for the man he had always called his father. He had known, for as long as he could remember, that Konetsu was not his true father. Somehow, the knowledge had always been his. He had always resented the old man for concealing the truth from him. Though Konetsu had always been there to guide and aid him, he had always pushed his father's hand away.

And yet now, knowing what was to come, all that he could think of was to race to his father as swiftly as possible and warn him of what was to come.

He had not found Konetsu at the House of the White Jade Fan. He could only conclude that his father had returned to the Four Temples, to pray as he often did. If Konetsu had already reached the temple, its sacred ground would keep his soul safe. If not&

Thunder growled in the sky above. Midoru glanced up and saw blood red clouds crawling across the sky. Everything that Chunigo had warned was swiftly coming to pass, swifter than even Keitaro and the other Jade Magistrates could do anything to prevent. A rain of corruption would fall across Rokugan. It would feed upon the sins in men's souls fear, desire, regret. Those who were found wanting would lose their souls to Jigoku.

"Get inside!" Midoru shouted as he raced through the crowed. "Seek shelter! This storm is dark magic!"

Some of the wiser passersby quickly obeyed, racing inside buildings as quickly as they could. A few of the stupider ones stared up at the sky blankly, wanting to see what would happen. A few even pointed at Midoru and laughed. The Crane sneered and continued running. He had no time for fools.

Midoru spied a bald head in the crowd before him, and shoved his way through the crowd toward it. "Father!" he shouted.

The thunder suddenly cracked in the sky overhead.

Konetsu turned, looking back over one shoulder. When he saw Midoru, his eyes were filled with sadness.

Red lightning arced through the clouds. A few who had doubted Midoru's warning before now began to look at one another with doubt. Those who had not yet found shelter began to panic, shoving one another aside as they raced for shelter.

"Father!" Midoru shouted over the growing riot. "Get inside, quickly!"

Konetsu looked at Midoru, confused. He was too far away, and could not hear his son's words.

Then, in a sheet, blood rained from the sky.

Midoru stared in surprise as the rain parted around him, not touching his flesh. The crowd surged around him, now in a full panic. Something struck him hard in the back of the skull as the crowd rolled over him, and all was dark.

----------------

Hours Later&

"Samurai-sama?"

Midoru felt a dull, throbbing pain in his skull that echoed throughout his body.

"Samurai-sama?" the meek voice repeated.

Midoru opened his eyes, then immediately closed them again, blinded by the morning light shining through the window. He opened them again, more carefully, and surveyed his surroundings. He was lying on a rough palette in a poor peasant house. A small woman knelt beside his bed. She looked at him with a delighted smile, then averted her eyes respectfully. He was dressed only in rough trousers.

"What happened?" he asked.

"We found you in the road this morning," the woman said. "My husband says he believes you were trampled by a horse."

"I was out there all night?" Midoru asked.

She nodded, glancing up for a moment. Her eyes looked afraid. "But the rain did not touch you, even when you fell. Surely some kami watches over you."

"Surely," he replied in a dry voice.

A mystery for another time.

"You were the one who warned us," the woman said. "My sons were playing& I brought them inside. You saved us all samurai-sama."

Midoru stood up and straightened his kimono, ignoring the woman's gratitude. "There was an old man out there& a monk named Konetsu. Did you see him?"

The woman shook her head slowly. "The streets were dangerous last night," she replied. "They say some corrupted madmen still rampage out there today. My husband banded with some others to fight, but I have remained inside."

"Then I go to fight as well," Midoru said. "Where are my swords?"

The woman nodded to a cloth bundle by the door. The peasants had been careful to bring them safely inside without dishonoring the weapons by touching them. Midoru nodded in satisfaction as he felt the comfortable weight of the weapons at his hip.

"Arigato," he said, bowing deeply to the peasant. The woman looked up at him with open wonder. "You have the gratitude of Doji Midoru."

Without another word, Midoru stepped out into the streets of Toshi Ranbo. If those who had fallen to the Bloodspeaker rain still walked these streets, he would find them. He would destroy them.

Even if Konetsu walked among them.

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Kaze no Shiro Return

 

Togashi will return!